We don’t think Michelle Jones could change because we see black moms as monsters

Roundup
tags: Harvard, Michelle Jones



Manisha Sinha is the Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut and author of "The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition."

The recent controversy over Harvard University’s decision to withdraw an offer of admission to its doctoral program in history from ex-convict Michelle Jones has evoked strong criticism. Should Jones, who served 20 years in prison for the horrific murder of her 4-year-old son, be given a second chance? Arriving in the midst of much public discussion on the criminalization of blackness and mass incarceration, Jones’s rejection by Harvard has taken on a significance far beyond the particulars of her case.

Part of the controversy at the heart of Jones’s case is about our culture’s differing notions of crime and punishment: While progressives in the United States have tended to prefer reformative justice, conservatives have tended to resort to retributive justice. The difference is as old as the Bible, the “eye for an eye” dispensation of the Old Testament vs. “let him without sin cast the first stone” of the New. In Jones’s case, conservatives seem to be of the mindset that she should be penalized endlessly for a murder committed after a childhood of abuse and neglect that she then inflicted on her own son. Writing on Hot Air, John Sexton, for instance, claims that she showed “no remorse” for her crime, and argues that Harvard was therefore right to refuse her admission.

The question is not whether one should excuse or even explain Jones’s actions, which by all accounts is inexcusable. It’s rather whether forgiveness and redemption is possible: As Harvard Professor Elizabeth Kai Hinton eloquently put it, “How much do we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?” Due to America’s history of racial exclusion and exploitation, the answer appears to be: not very much, especially when it comes to one of white America’s ultimate boogeymen – the monstrous black mother.

The American tendency to view blackness itself as a criminal quality  developed under the legal regimen of slavery that defined all slave runaways as fugitives from justice. In the North, free blacks also often found themselves ensnared by the criminal justice system for petty crimes. As the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison quipped in an observation that resonates even today, all Northern institutions, including educational ones, had shut their doors to African Americans “except our prison houses.”

The political economy of slavery was kept afloat by a buoyant domestic slave trade in human beings before the Civil War, which tore apart black families, separating children from parents, husbands from wives and siblings from one another. One in four black families in the older slave states was broken apart, and abolitionists seized on this inhumanity to further indict slavery. The pro-slavery response was that African Americans were in fact negligent, abusive  and unfeeling parents who did not grieve for their children as much as their white counterparts: Thus was the image of the unfeeling monstrous black mother born. Black women were often portrayed as the opposite of white women, who according to Victorian gender conventions were naturally saintly, domestic, ideal wives and mothers. African American women, often victims of sexual and physical abuse, were portrayed as lascivious, sinful  and indolent wives and mothers. ...




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